`Great Debate:' Obituary of Heber D. Curtis

This obituary was reprinted from PASP, 54, 68, 1942, with permission.


Vol. 54   San Francisco, California, April 1942   No. 318

                  HEBER DOUST CURTIS
                     1872 - 1942

                 BY ROBERT R. McMATH
Heber Doust Curtis, Professor of Astronomy and Director of the Astronomical Observatories of the University of Michigan, died in his home in the Observatory residence at Ann Arbor, Michigan, on January 9, 1942. His life as an astronomer had led him throughout the world, and ultimately back to his native state to spend his last years in familiar surroundings. He is survived by his wife, Mary D. Rapier Curtis; a daughter, Margaret, Mrs. A. J. Walters; and three sons, Rowen D., Alan D., and Baldwin R.

Professor Curtis was born in Muskegon, Michigan, on June 27, 1872. His early schooling in the Detroit, Michigan, public schools was followed by five years at the University of Michigan, where he received his A.B. and A.M. degrees. Later, at the University of Virginia, he received his Ph.D. degree in Astronomy. In the year 1930 he was given an honorary Sc.D. degree by the University of Pittsburgh in recognition of his many achievements in the field of Astronomy. Memberships in both learned and popular societies were many, including the Astronomical Society of the Pacific (President, 1912); Fellow, The American Association for the Advancement of Science (Vice-President, Section D, Astronomy, 1924); American Astronomical Society (Vice- President, 1926); National Academy of Sciences; American Philosophical Society; Research Club (University of Michigan); Royal Astronomical Society, Foreign Associate; Astronomishe Gesellschaft; International Astronomical Union, Commission 13, Solar Eclipses; Phi Beta Kappa; Sigma Xi; and Phi Kappa Phi. He was Henry Russell lecturer at the University of Michigan in 1938.

During his undergraduate years at the University of Michigan, his interests were mainly in the classical languages. His first seven years after graduation were spent as a teacher. He taught Latin in the Detroit High School during the academic year 1893-94, and was then Professor of Greek and Latin at Napa College (California) until 1896, when he became Professor of Mathematics and Astronomy at the College of the Pacific - all before he turned to Astronomy as a career. In 1900, Curtis accompanied the Lick Observatory - Crocker Eclipse Expedition to Thomaston, Georgia, as volunteer observer. This, his first eclipse expedition, was followed by an appointment to the Vanderbilt Fellowship at the University of Virginia, which he held for two years, receiving his Ph.D. degree in Astronomy in 1902.

For eighteen years, starting in 1902, Curtis was associated with the Lick Observatory. From 1902 to 1905, he served as Assistant and Assistant Astronomer, from 1906 to 1910, as Acting Astronomer in charge of the D. O. Mills Expedition to the Southern Hemisphere at Santiago, Chile, and from 1910 to 1920 as Astronomer at Lick Observatory. The war years, 1917 to 1918, were spent in organizing and conducting a navigation school for the United States Shipping Board in San Diego, California, in teaching navigation in the Naval Officers' School in Berkeley, and as research physicist in the Optical Section of the National Bureau of Standards in Washington, D.C., where for a time he was acting head of the Optical Section.

Upon his return from Chile in 1910, Professor Curtis was placed in charge of the Crossley reflector to continue the survey of the nebulae begun by Keeler. He regarded the results of this survey (Pub. Lick Obs. 13, 1-74, 1918) as his most important contribution to astronomy, but the mechanical modifications which he made in the Crossley to facilitate his observational program gave him as much personal satisfaction. Detailed descriptions of his many researches will be found elsewhere.

In 1920 the University of Pittsburgh selected Curtis as the Director of the Allegheny Observatory. In the ensuing decade, his penchant for machine work and the designing of apparatus found expression in the many instruments that he designed and constructed, primarily for use in the Allegheny Observatory, but also for four solar eclipse expeditions of which he was a member. In 1930, the Allegheny Observatory Eclipse Expedition to Gerlach, Nevada, was headed by Curtis. He also built, in the Allegheny shops, a long-screw measuring engine for the Sproul Observatory. The problems that he encountered and solved in constructing an accurate screw led him to make preliminary plans for a grating ruling engine. He always regarded a successful ruling engine as "the most perfect man-made mechanism," and he was eager to try to build one.

In 1930 he accepted the Directorship of the Astronomical Observatories of the University of Michigan. Professor Curtis came to Michigan prepared to design a large reflecting telescope for the University Observatory at Ann Arbor. By the time he completed design of the telescope, the 1932 depression was at its "lowest," and funds were no longer available for its construction. In spite of the scarcity of funds, however, Curtis was able to organize and lead the University of Michigan Eclipse Expedition to Fryeburg, Maine, in 1932. This was the eleventh, and last, of the eclipse expeditions in which he took part.

When Professor Curtis came to Michigan, the development of the McMath-Hulbert Observatory as a private institution was well under way. He immediately took a great interest in the Lake Angelus project, and was in almost daily touch with the writer until the day of his death. His contributions to the McMath-Hulbert Observatory cannot be measured.

During the last eleven years, the writer and Professor Curtis were constantly together, both socially and professionally. First, last, and always, Heber D. Curtis was a man. Sympathetic understanding was always available for those in need; clear-headed, concise thinking about all problems was one of his many fine characteristics, but when the situation demanded, Professor Curtis could be all "iron." The writer was indeed privileged to call Heber D. Curtis his friend.

Astronomers will recall the note by Campbell at the 1900 eclipse: "We do not see how we could have dispensed with his services, nor how anyone could have met the exacting demands better than he did."

                      MARCH 1942

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